Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, February 4, 2024


Thanks to the "Crew Stories" FB page, I recently came across another "inside the belly of the beast" film book. In Purple Fury: Rumbling With the Warriors, Rob Ryder weaves a collection of anecdotes describing his adventures toiling in many aspects of the film industry -- from PA to locations, set dec, acting, screenwriting, props, and sundry other on/off set chores -- around the central story of working on Walter Hill's legendary 1979 film The Warriors.  The title and cover photo come from Rob being drafted by Hill to replace an injured stuntman as a member of "The Baseball Furies," one of the violent gangs The Warriors must confront as they fight their way across New York City over the course of one long, bruising night. While playing the bat-swinging role of "Purple Fury" for the cameras at night, he managed to keep his day job in the Locations Dept for a few days, which made the messy and exhausting job of working a feature film all the more grueling. 

As you can see from the first page, Ryder is a stylish writer who spins a punchy, informative, and highly entertaining tale: 

"Making movies is a lot like life -- a swirling chaotic clusterfuck. So if you're looking for a polished story that stays on track, clips along in perfect chronological order and rolls into the last station all tied up in a shiny pink bow, you caught the wrong train."  

He wasn't kidding. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and place from NYC to Hollywood, but Ryder's casual conversational style feels like he's telling you these stories told over a few ... okay, more than a few ... beers, and that's a good thing. This book is a highly entertaining read for industry veterans and newbies alike: the former will nod and grin as they resonate with Ryder's experiences, while the newbies receive a lively and accurate introduction to what it's like to work on a feature film.

I saw The Warriors when it was released thirty-five years ago, and although it made a big impression on me, I had no idea that it's since become a cult favorite all over the world, or that surviving members of the cast still gather at conventions to meet-and-greet fans, many of whom weren't even born when the film first hit theaters. 

Ryder moved to New York to become a writer before fate sent him on a detour into the film industry, but kept at the keyboard writing screenplays that often sold but didn't get made. Although one could view this as -- in the immortal words of then-president Jimmy Carter -- "an incomplete success," it's a hell of a lot more than most wannabe screenwriters accomplish. As his book reveals, he's still at it all these years later, coming up with ideas for scripts and making them pay one way or another. All that practice turned him into an excellent writer, which makes Purple Fury a great read.


There's a fascinating piece on Scott Frank in the January 1 - 8 New Yorker by Patrick Radden Keefe, titled The Ventriloquist. Truth be told, I'd never heard of Frank before reading this article, but it turns out he's been one of the most prolific and in-demand screenwriter/script doctors in Hollywood for quite a while now, to the point where he was able to demand $300,000 a week for his re-write services before moving into the triple-threat task of being a writer/producer/director.

His credits include Get ShortyMarley & Me, and Logan, among many others, and according to Keefe, has done rewrites for sixty features. His most recent effort is directing a television series currently running on AMC called Monsieur Spade, which imagines the life of an aging Sam Spade -- the lead character of Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon -- after he's left San Franciso to live in France.

Although I've long been interested in writing, I've never been drawn to screenplays.  Like all writing, screenwriting is an art -- and thus a noble endeavor -- but even the best screenplay is a blueprint for a movie, not the movie itself.  No matter how clever the plot or beautiful the story structure, a brilliant screenplay will never see the light of day unless and until someone turns it into a movie.  Few people beyond actors, producers, directors, and aspiring screenwriters read screenplays, and I don't imagine many people outside the film and television industry ever say to themselves "Hey, this feels like a good night to sit by the fire and read a screenplay."  

The best screenwriters are as good at their craft as any short story specialist, novelist, or poet, but I'm grateful that I've never been drawn to that particular literary flame.  I know a few people who are, and although they write smart, well-structured screenplays, the finger-to-the-air nature of the marketplace has left them beating their heads against the wall of futility for many years.  It seems that a good screenplay at the wrong time has less a chance of being sold -- much less making it to the silver screen -- than a bad screenplay at the right time.  Although I can't imagine dealing with such a level of frustration, I salute those who keep grinding away at it year after year.  They're made of sterner stuff than I.    

For what it's worth,  here are some thoughts on the subject of screenwriting from back in 2008, and eight years later, a few more thoughts.   

Keefe's article is a great read, so I hope that link works -- you never know these days.  If not, well, most libraries carry the New Yorker, and this one is worth a trip to your local branch.  For any of you interested in more from Scott Frank, he has a lot to say in several of the On Story podcasts out of Austin, Texas.


At some point in the last few years I stopped listening to podcasts of The Business, the weekly half-hour show on KCRW-FM that begins with a quick roundup of the latest news in the film and television industry, then moves on to an interview with an actor, writer, director, producer, or other luminary of the business.  Some weeks were great, others not so much, but eventually I grew weary of the show host, Kim Masters, and her habit of constantly interrupting and talking over her guests to the point where it seemed she thought the show was more about her than them.

I tuned in again recently and was pleasantly surprised to find that -- for these two episodes, anyway -- Kim left the interviewing to hosts more willing to shine the spotlight on the guests. The first features Noah Hawley discussing his Fargo series and another series in the works based on the "Alien" movies.  A wonderful storyteller, Hawley is also one very smart guy, and has some interesting things to say about a lot of things in that conversation.  The second has Gary Oldman talking about his role in Slow Horses, his acting career, his interest in directing, and the lure of continuing to work part-time so he can do things in life other than work on set. Personally, I could listen to Gary Oldman read a phone book (google it, kids) for twenty minutes, but this interview offers a lot more. If you like either show, give these a listen -- you'll be glad you did.


A letter from my union local arrived a couple of weeks ago with an odd request: the officers wanted me to retire ... again.  I was confused at first --  didn't I already retire back in 2017, so WTF?

It turns out that a large portion of the dues each retiree pays to remain a member of the local goes to the IA international.* Although that's not necessarily a bad thing, my local in LA is hard-pressed to keep up with the ever-increasing cost of life insurance premiums that cover all members. They could raise the quarterly dues, of course, but after most of the union was unemployed for more than six months last year thanks to the WGA/SAG strike -- and with full production not yet up to speed in Hollywood -- nobody wants to see the dues go up.  By signing and returning the form, I'd become "a retired member of IATSE" rather than simply retired from Local 728,  so the local would get more of the annual dues I pay, which would help defray those insurance costs.  

According to the letter, the only downside to signing that form is that there's no going back. An IA member who retires from the local can "un-retire" and go back to work -- or if sufficiently motivated, run for one of the union officer jobs -- but once he or she officially retires from the international, those avenues are closed. Given that I now live four hundred miles north of LA and am not about to take all those "safety classes" again --  without which I wouldn't be allowed on set anyway -- going back to work was never a realistic possibility, and my interest in becoming an officer of the local is less than zero.  That said, I hate to torch a bridge unless it's unavoidable, so I left the letter sitting on my desk for a week or so.  Then one morning I looked at it and thought "Who am I kidding? No fucking way am I moving back to LA to get back on the Hollywood merry-go-round." 

It's over -- it was over the first time I retired back in 2017.  At this point, an hour or two of stacking firewood finishes me off for the day, so there's no way I could go back to slinging 4/0 on a rigging crew or working 12 hour days on set.  More to the point, I don't want to -- at all. Forty years was enough ... so I signed the form and dropped it in the mail the next day. 

I won't lose any sleep over this.

That's all, kiddos. As months go, February isn't much fun -- at all -- but remember the words of Garrison Keillor:

"Without winter, you can't appreciate the spring."

 * Retiree dues are much less than active members -- in my case, around $120 a year as opposed to nearly $1000 active members pay.